I'm devoting this column to anyone who is just getting started with .NET. I'll introduce you to some basic .NET learning tools as well as provide you with links to resources in which you can get more information.

Microsoft has done an excellent job of making .NET accessible to everyone. It has provided not only free tools but also a lot of free sample code and other material online. One of the best examples is the combination of Microsoft Express Editions and Starter Kits.

The Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions provide access to the same compilers that are in the Visual Studio 2005 versions you must pay for. The differences between the Express Editions and the other versions primarily lie in the types of projects you can create. You can download an Express version of Visual Basic (VB), Visual C#, Visual J#, or Visual C++, so you can build Windows applications in the language of choice. If you want to build Web applications, you can download Visual Web Developer 2005 Express Edition. This tool lets you use either VB or Visual C# to create ASP.NET Web sites.

The Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions are free until November of this year, after which they're supposed to retail for $49 each. You can get more information about these tools at http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/express .

Microsoft also offers the SQL Server 2005 Express Edition (SQL Server Express). Similar to the Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions, SQL Server Express is free. However, SQL Server Express will remain a free product.

If you download one of the Visual Studio 2005 Express Editions, it will offer to install a copy of SQL Server Express. If you accept (and I suggest that you do), SQL Server Express will be installed in a named instance on your machine. A named instance basically means that instead of accessing the database engine through your computer's name or IP address, you need to specify an additional qualifier to your machine name. This qualifier is separated from the machine name with a backslash (\). Thus, after you install SQL Server Express you use

mymachine\SQLExpress

(where mymachine is your computer's name) to reference your newly installed database for connection purposes. Whether you already have a version of SQL Server installed or want to in the future, the default instance will remain untouched by SQL Server Express. For more information about SQL Server Express, go to http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=82AFBD59-57A4-455E-A2D6-1D4C98D40F6E&displaylang=en.

If you want sample databases for SQL Server Express, you can download the Northwind and pubs databases from the Web page at http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=06616212-0356-46A0-8DA2-EEBC53A68034&displaylang=en%20. This Web page also contains a link to the AdventureWorks sample databases, which you can also use with SQL Server Express.

Like Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE), SQL Server Express doesn't include a management interface. Thus, SQL Server Express can be somewhat difficult to work with. Fortunately, Microsoft has created a baseline management interface called SQL Server Management Studio Express (SSMSE) for SQL Server Express. For more information about SSMSE, go to http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?FamilyId=82AFBD59-57A4-455E-A2D6-1D4C98D40F6E&displaylang=en.

As I mentioned previously, Microsoft provides free Starter Kits. Starter kits are sample projects that you can review to see how an actual product works within the tool you've chosen. Each version of Visual Studio 2005--from the Team Suite down to the Express Editions--ships with one or more Starter Kits.

For example, the Express Editions for VB and Visual C# ship with the same pair of Starter Kits: My Movie Collection and Screen Saver. The Web page at http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/w6ce4ebt.aspx describes these kits. The Express Edition for Visual J# ships with one Starter Kit for a calculator application, which you can read about at http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms241060.aspx.

To access the Starter Kits in the Visual Studio 2005 version you're using, simply select New on the File menu, then select the Starter Kits option. After you select a Starter Kit, Visual Studio 2005 will pull in all the resources, including source code, associated with that kit. For a detailed introduction to Starter Kits, check out the Web page at http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ms247071.aspx.

It's possible to extend the default set of Starter Kits. This ability is important because Visual Studio 2005 includes only those Starter Kits that don't require a database. More complex Starter Kits are available on the Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) Web site. For example, additional VB Starter Kits are available at http://msdn.microsoft.com/vbasic/downloads/starterkits/default.aspx. You can find more Visual C# Starter Kits at http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/express/visualcsharp/starterkit. And additional Starter Kits for Visual Web Developer are obtainable at http://msdn.microsoft.com/vstudio/express/vwd/starterkit/default.aspx.

You can even create your own Starter Kit, which you can share with other developers. To learn more about how to create a Starter Kit, go to http://msdn2.microsoft.com/en-us/library/ccd9ychb.aspx.

To leverage the free Starter Kits and Express Editions, you can take advantage of free Microsoft Webcasts. For example, this month Microsoft is offering a special Webcast series for developers who are considering migrating to ASP.NET 2.0. You can find information about the ASP.NET 2.0 Webcast series on the Web page at http://ad.doubleclick.net/clk;26540614;12550611;s?http://www.learn2asp.net/campaign.aspx. This page includes a special offer for a licensed copy of Visual Studio 2005 Standard Edition.

In the ASP.NET 2.0 Webcast series, I'll be presenting a pair of sessions about the login controls and membership features built into ASP.NET 2.0. To find my sessions, click any of the topic areas, then go to the Adv. ASP.NET 2.0 tab in the box near the bottom of the page. My first presentation is "Introduction to the Authentication and Membership Controls of ASP.NET 2.0" at 9 AM (PST) on March 14. My second presentation is "Digging Into the Customization of ASP.NET 2.0 Authentication and Membership" at 10 AM (PST) on March 16.